Developments in the Eastern neighbourhood are not only driven by regional actors but outcomes can also be shaped by countries such as Belarus. Certainly, much remains at play for the next decade.
The Eastern European Futures report describes potential future scenarios for the Eastern Partnership region. Within these, there are developments of particular importance to Belarus.
To recall, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) framework in 2009 with the intention of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation.
A decade on, however, politicians and experts are debating the merits and weaknesses of the framework. There have been positive developments. three of the EU’s Eastern neighbours – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – have embarked on challenging democratic and economic transformations and have built, through far-reaching association, free trade and visa agreements, ever-closer ties with the EU. Another neighbour, Armenia, has recently set itself on a similarly positive path.
At the same time, Azerbaijan and Belarus seem committed to an authoritarian status quo which may foreclose fully developed relations and cooperation with the EU.
Adding to this complexity is Russia, neighbour to both the EU and its Eastern partners, which has increasingly and aggressively asserted itself across the Eastern Partnership region over the last years.
The authors of the report collected expert input about trends and triggers that could take place in the Eastern Partnership area and the wider Eastern neighbourhood the next decade-and combined them into four plausible scenarios.
Below, are the most relevant developments in the Belarusian context as part of these scenarios.
New ties and infrastructure
Within the first scenario of pragmatic integration, Belarus does not try to accelerate the undertaking of economic agreements with the EU. Nevertheless, increased trade and the emergence of new ties and infrastructure between Belarus and the EU are inevitable, especially in light of the emerging oil and gas supply logistics.
This diversification has recently been demonstrated through Poland’s role in the supply of US oil to Belarus.
In the next decade, Belarusian authorities are likely to launch a massive image campaign in order to attract additional investments. They also provide absolute guarantees for foreign ownership, investments and personnel.
In return, the EU invests in infrastructure and energy-related projects support to ensure the Belarusian energy system compliance with the EU standards.
Cooperation with the EU and NATO in military and security spheres remains low, however, exchange and training programs for officials that happened during previous decades have not been as active as now.
Space for manoeuvre reduced
In the scenario, where Russia’s hegemony is revisited, Moscow brings off the construction of Nord Stream-2 and takes political and economic advantage of it to the full. The crisis within the EU and NATO prompts standing political leadership of Russia to take its European partners on the rebound and capture Eastern Partnership countries’ strategic sectors of the economy.
Tensions between Moscow and leaders of some Eastern Partnership countries result in Russia acting aggressively in order to demonstrate its appetence and capacity to dominate over the entire region.
Following a longstanding collision over the oil and gas transit gains with Belarus, Russia puts boots on its ground to ensure the transit infrastructure security, as well as takes other strategic facilities over its control.
From this point forward, Minsk finds its space for manoeuvre reduced by its unilateral relations with Moscow, while its European direction becomes exposed to even stricter control by its Eastern neighbour. As a result, the prospects for Belarus’ involvement in the Eastern Partnership are suspended.
Moscow retains financial ties with the political elites in other EaP countries and forces them to act for its own selfish ends applying stick and carrot policy. As a result, the European Partnership initiative becomes an instrument for Russia to spread its operation against the EU via means of clandestine corruption.
In general, some countries may face breakup (Ukraine), polarisation (Moldova), the collapse of the separation of powers principle within them, or the economic survival struggle.
Belarus will meet the prospect of greater dependence on Russia and will struggle to obviate from further approximation with it.
Plumb the depths
In a third scenario, a large-scale event such as an economic crisis or the emerging challenge coming from China forces the EU to pivot to Moscow in search for cooperation on the basis of shared economic and security interests.
In case of a major downturn, Belarus is forced to plumb the depths of the market economy. Mounting fuel prices, taxes, a shutdown of the state-owned factories, novel market-oriented financial regulations and the financial strategy of the National Bank will terminate the subsidies that used to finance state-owned enterprises.
The supply of raw materials and energy resources is diversified and the Belarusian quasi-socialist model declines.
Despite the interests of the Eastern Partnership being marginalised to some extent, Europe and China see Belarus as a key partner providing reliable road, rail and pipeline transit – because of growing volatility and lack of efficient state control in Ukraine.
A minimal role
Finally, a more optimised scenario that puts civic emancipation as a key driver of developments, suggests that public activism and civil society play only a minimal role in Belarus, contrary to other countries in the region.
Nevertheless, Belarusian authorities are impelled to give greater consideration to social needs. The government will preserve severe restrictions on public meetings by activists, as well as on the political self-organization of citizens.
Young technocrats will play a leading role in the transformation of the socio-economic landscape and the rules of the game for business.
Over the next decade, this group of young reformers will recalibrate into an upper middle political class. Either way, while stimulating reforms they will also remain hostages to the existing political system.
In sum, the report highlights how much remains at play in Belarus depending on which trends and triggers materialise in the next years.